Heading in to the 2008-09 season, Ferris State coach Bob Daniels was confident that it was the year his team would finally shed its reputation as a club that got by on strong defense and goaltending with an offensive outburst. All of the pieces were in place, from an offensively productive blue line to a handful of forwards with excellent goal-scoring potential.
As the year progressed, things didn’t pan out as planned. The Bulldogs languished in the bottom quarter of the CCHA’s scoring charts and an end-of-the-season slide cost Ferris State a first-round bye and came to a conclusion with a pair of three-goal losses to Nebraska-Omaha in the CCHA playoffs.
“I’m still a little befuddled why we couldn’t score consistently last year,” Daniels said. “We still had a shot at a top-four spot, but we lost our last five or six games, but I still think we had a decent year.”
Things have finally turned the corner in Big Rapids during the early stages of the present season, with Ferris State jumping out to a 9-3-2 record on the back of the conference’s most prolific offense, which has averaged an impressive 3.57 goals per game and a defense that allows just 1.93 goals against.
A major player in the Bulldogs offensive turnaround has been last week’s INCH National Player of the Week Blair Riley, a senior who was the first player in the country to reach 12 goals before last weekend’s bye.
Riley has teamed up with fellow seniors Casey Haines and Cody Chupp to the tune of 19 combined goals in 14 games. The senior gives credit to his teammates for finding the optimal style of play for their skill sets.
“We’re all the same type of player,” Riley said. “We’re all cyclers down low, not offensive, speedy players, so we’re not going to score off of the rush too often … Mostly I’m successful when the puck is in the offensive zone. When I’m down low, I can use my size to get the puck into the net.”
Riley’s path to Big Rapids was somewhat convoluted, with his name coming across Daniels’ desk as an emergency replacement late in the recruiting cycle. After some discussions about Riley’s game and what Ferris State had to offer, Riley committed to the Bulldogs without having been to campus.
Daniels immediately liked what he saw, and had high hopes for Riley from the beginning. While the potential was there, Riley managed just three goals during his freshman year and struggled during the first half of his sophomore year before a breakout hat trick during the UConn Hockey Classic Championship game on Dec. 30, 2007.
And while he regressed to a seven-goal total in his junior year after 14 in 2007-08, Daniels believes that magical night and the early stages of this year are more representative of Riley’s talents.
“I don’t think it’s a fluke, I believe that this is what you can expect from him,” Daniels said. “In his first year, he was in condition for Division I hockey, then in the second half of his sophomore year he scored 10 goals. He has an NHL shot and an NHL release, so I really was confused a year ago when he wasn’t scoring.”
While most took Riley’s early season success with a grain of salt after the Bulldogs played Canisius, Connecticut and Robert Morris in the early going, two shootout wins at Miami and – two weeks ago – an eight-goal haul at home against Ohio State followed by a three-goal comeback have people believing in Ferris State.
“Early on, a lot of people had doubts about our strength of schedule, even guys on the team weren’t convinced that we were a contending team,” Riley said. “Any time you can get eight in the goal at this level, that’s a sign of a good team.”
Riley and the Bulldogs face a tough Nebraska-Omaha team this weekend that could go a long way in giving the team some legitimacy as a contender for a first-round bye or a league title.
But regardless of how Ferris State continues from here on out, Daniels is confident in one fact: the undrafted Riley should be one of the hottest NHL free agent commodities next summer.
And if anyone knows what it takes to overcome undrafted status to become a regular NHL skater it’s Daniels, as one can’t forget the success of two-time Stanley Cup Champion Chris Kunitz who grew a greal deal under Daniels’ tutelage.